Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks 2009. ISBN 978-1-4022-1889-7. 458 pages.
Pendragon's Banner is the second in Helen Hollick's King Arthur trilogy (the first is The Kingmaking, reviewed here). I read and enjoyed the trilogy when it was first published, and am pleased to see it back in print.
Arthur, the illegitimate son of Uthr Pendragon, is now Pendragon and High King of Britain, after the political and military struggles recounted in The Kingmaking. But Arthur is still young, aged only 24, and his position is not secure. Other lords, such as Amlawdd in the south-west and Lot and Hueil in the north of Britain, fancy themselves as High King. The Council of Britain and Arthur's uncle Ambrosius hanker after a return to the Roman Empire. Winifred, Arthur's ex-wife, is scheming to get the kingship for the son she had with Arthur, Cerdic. Morgause, Uthr's cruel mistress who has hated Arthur since his childhood, is plotting his destruction and has laid a curse on Arthur - that if he pursues her, none of his sons will live. Arthur, his beloved wife Gwenhwyfar and their young children are beset with dangers, and defending Arthur's position as High King demands a heavy price. Will it be too high for their relationship to bear?
As with the previous book in the trilogy, Pendragon's Banner is free of supernatural powers. No Merlin, no enchanted sword, no magic, no sorcery, no Round Table, no knights in shining armour. This is a good thing in my view, but readers looking for the fantasy aspects of the King Arthur legends will not find them here.
Pendragon's Banner is a story of human love and conflict, centred on the two main characters, Arthur and his wife Gwenhwyfar. Gwenhwyfar, a princess from Gwynedd (modern north-west Wales), is the descendant of a long line of warriors and something of a warrior herself. She is beautiful, clever, hot-tempered, passionate and as strong-willed as Arthur, leading to frequent quarrels as their opinions and desires clash. Arthur is a military genius, but his skill on the battlefield is not matched in the council chamber. He makes no secret of despising his councillors as a bunch of irrelevant old fools, he antagonises his uncle Ambrosius, he provokes and belittles his loyal but strait-laced cousin Cei, and his jealousy over other men's attentions to Gwenhwyfar (real or imagined) gets him into more than one fight. The stormy marriage between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, their private family tragedies, and the intolerable stresses resulting from the conflict between Arthur's position as High King and his role as husband and father, form the core of the narrative.
The novel spans a period of about seven years, giving ample opportunity for a lot of warfare and political scheming as well as the personal relationships. It also incorporates numerous legends attached to the King Arthur story, such as the tale of Ider fighting a giant on Brent Knoll near Glastonbury and a quarrel between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar at the Queen's Crags on Hadrian's Wall. Perhaps as a result of including so many legends, the book is very long and I found the plot rather sprawling. Arthur has to face not one but two rebellions in the north, Morgause and Winifred are constantly hatching schemes, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar quarrel and make up, become estranged and reconciled and quarrel again. Some plot threads, such as Arthur's alliance with the Saxon leader Winta, are introduced in detail and then disappear, perhaps because this is the middle part of a trilogy and they may be setting up for something in the third book.
Detailed descriptions of landscape and weather, among other aspects, make for a leisurely pace. This is accentuated by the elaborate prose style (e.g. "had the wanting of" instead of "wanted"), which sets a consciously archaic tone and sometimes requires more than one reading to disentangle the meaning. Keeping track of everything takes concentration, and readers may like to take note that typos in some of the dates in the chapter headings can be confusing (e.g. Chapter 43 in Part 1 is headed "April 456", but is a continuation of the battle in the previous few chapters headed "December 462"). Although the backstory from Book One is explained where necessary, the trilogy works best if read back to back as a single long story.
A helpful Author's Note explains some of the background, and a family tree at the front of the book helps in keeping track of the family relationships between the large cast of characters. There's also a very useful list of place names with their modern equivalents (but note that Wroxeter and Winteringham have been mistakenly reversed in the list), and a list of questions for reading groups to consider.
Book Two of a trilogy retelling the King Arthur legends without fantasy trappings.
Review copy supplied by the publisher.